Saturday, December 13, 2008


I took my first grad school class this semester, a lit class about life writing, or autobiography. Right now I'm procrastinating my final paper, which is about The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I first read that book in college, almost 20 years ago, and it had a profound impact on me. It gave me a completely new perspective on America, one that turned this nation's values upside down, revealing their hypocrisies and hidden injustices.

But more than that, it provided a model for how one ought to live.

Malcolm was one who strove to be the very best at everything he did -- whether he was a street hustler or a minister in the Nation of Islam. And he was one of those rare geniuses who was able to achieve the pinnacle of success in every endeavor.

But what most impressed and inspired me was the way he embraced change. At several points in his book he describes his life as a series of changes. And when he changed, he went all out.

As a kid, he put everything he had into his school work, earning his way to the top of the class. But when a teacher told him he should lay aside his dreams of being a lawyer because he's black, he chucked his whole good-student life and through himself headlong into being a street hustler.

In Boston and Harlem, he was known by one and all as Detroit Red. All the big band stars knew him, and he was raking in the dough and walking around town with a beautiful white woman on his arm -- what was for him, at that point in his life, the ultimate prize.

In jail, he embraced religion and devoured books, building his vocabulary by meticulously copying down every word in a dictionary. Upon release, he devoted every waking minute to preaching the message of Elijah Mohammad.

Then he discovered that the man that he literally worshiped was not only an adulterer but one who would destroy the lives of the women he knocked up in order to maintain his own image. For a while, he tried to rationalize, to scheme ways to protect his leader. But eventually he severed ties, knowing it would mean his life.

I decided to focus on Malcolm X for my final project after I read an essay comparing his autobiography to that of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's is a cornerstone of the genre. Whereas before the bulk of autobiographies were about spiritual awakenings, his was the first story of the self-made man, the remarkable tale of a remarkable man. It was meant, quite literally, as a story to live by. It was something everyday schlubs like me to could aspire to and look up to.

Franklin's was also the story of a young nation coming of age told through the story of one of its greatest men coming of age. It was also totally propagandistic. It contained nothing of Franklin's philandering, his Machiavelian politics, the way he could stab a rival in the back. Instead, it offered a step-by-step plan to acheiving perfection. I detested every word of it.

Malcolm is the anti-Franklin. His is the portrait of an opressive nation (world) at a time when revolution was in the air told through the story of one of its oppressed who was fanning the flames of revolution.

But at the same time, Malcolm is a lot like Franklin. He advises every step of the way, and much of his advice is very conservative. Always wear a watch and be on time. Don't take drugs. Don't drink. Don't smoke. Pursue knowledge relentlessly. Respect women. Don't fornicate. Tell the truth. And, ultimately, don't judge anyone solely by the color of their skin (event whites).

It was interesting reading the book a second time, a decade or so and lots of life experience down the road. And as a writer and a student of literature. What I most appreciated was Alex Haley's epilogue, because it exposed some of Malcolm's self-creation and propoganda. As a college kid, I naively looked up to Malcolm as a saint, unfallable, incapable of distorting his own story. I mjust have skimmed Haley's account, because he lifts the curtain a bit.

Still, it's refreshing to go back and find that one of my heroes remains much the way I first experienced him, as a model I could never live up to, but one that could make me a little better person if I tried.

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